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The Maze Runner (series) | Context


Dystopian Literature

The Maze Runner series is classified as postapocalyptic or dystopian literature. The series takes place after an apocalyptic event or a worldwide catastrophe. In this case sun flares (flashes of extremely high heat) have destroyed most of the planet, scorching greenery and causing the polar caps to melt so quickly it causes violent monsoons. The characters must find a way not only to survive but also to save the human race. In The Maze Runner the primary conflict centers on differing plans for survival between the WICKED government agency and the central characters (the Gladers).

Dystopian literature is a subgenre of science fiction and contains many of the same characteristics. For example, science fiction contains imaginary scientific advances, such as the Grievers, Flat Trans, Launchers, and Bergs described in the Maze Runner series. The genre differs from fantasy because all the imaginary elements make rational sense in the described world, meaning there is a scientific explanation to every imaginary element. Other characteristics of dystopian literature include:

  • The characters are flat rather than round: Flat characters are characters that fulfill expected, stereotypical roles rather than experiencing growth or change, such as the grizzled war veteran Alec in The Kill Order.
  • Citizens live under government control: Society is controlled by a flawed government organization that causes more harm than good, such as WICKED's creation of the Flare virus. Government leaders are often incompetent or evil, such as the various WICKED leaders who hide their status as Cranks.
  • Citizens live under constant government surveillance: WICKED kidnaps immune children in The Fever Code, and beetle blades monitor the Gladers in The Maze Runner.
  • Citizens often fear the outside world: Alby refuses to escape the Maze in The Maze Runner because he fears what life will be like on the outside.
  • The dystopian protagonist feels the need to escape his surroundings: Thomas desires to escape first the Maze (The Maze Runner), then the Scorch (The Scorch Trials), and then WICKED's control (The Death Cure).

Human Experimentation

The government-run human experimentation that takes place in The Maze Runner series has historical precedent. The most infamous example of human experimentation came out of Nazi concentration camps during World War II (1939–45). During this time Nazi scientists performed experiments on Jewish prisoners to discover, for example, immunization compounds, bone grafting, mustard gas, and treatments for hypothermia, tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis, yellow fever, and other contagious diseases.

The United States also has a history of unethical human experimentation. One example is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (1932–72). In Tuskegee, Alabama, the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) infected unwitting African American subjects with sexually transmitted diseases. Then the agency withheld adequate treatment to study the long-term effects of the disease on humans. Another experiment was the Guatemala Syphilis Experiment (1946–48). In this experiment the USPHS deliberately infected people in Guatemala with the syphilis virus without their consent. The aim was to test the effectiveness of penicillin. In 1972 a committee found the Tuskegee Experiment "ethically unjustified" and offered reparations to victims and their families.

The Maze Runner series questions the morality of human experimentation. Not only does the series detail the human cost of experimentation, it brings to light larger questions of morality. For example, when, if ever, is it okay to ignore morality for the perceived greater good? And who should make the decisions about which populations, if any, are given preferential treatment for survival?


A pandemic is an outbreak of an often fast-spreading disease on a world-wide scale that arises from an epidemic that begins in one location or part of the world. In The Maze Runner series the world's population is threatened by the Flare—a virus initially introduced by the government to aid in population control. In The Kill Order readers learn that the Flare spreads more rapidly than the government anticipates. The virus mutates over time, causing symptoms and suffering not initially planned.

Viruses are tiny organisms that attack a person's immune system, causing illness and in the case of the Flare, death. Viruses essentially hijack a person's cells and use those cells to reproduce, creating more viral organisms. Because viruses live inside a person's cells, they can be difficult to treat because the cells shield and protect the viruses from medication. As a person's immune system attacks and kills some viral organisms, others use host cells to change their genetic structure. This process causes the replicated viruses to mutate from their original forms. This understanding explains why the Flare spreads so rapidly and why symptoms change or worsen over time. Initially those who contract the Flare die within a few hours. By the end of the series, Cranks or infected persons often suffer for months before being consumed by the virus.

Series Structure

The Maze Runner series has a nonlinear plot structure, meaning the novels do not progress chronologically from start to finish. Rather, the first novel, The Maze Runner, opens in medias res, in the middle of things, as the protagonist Thomas awakens in the experimental setting of the Maze. From there, the first three novels progress in chronological order, but each novel hints at events in the past as characters experience flashbacks, particularly as their erased memories return. Some of these flashbacks provide details regarding the backstory of the Maze. Others, such as the character Gally's assertion that he remembers Thomas from the Maze's creation, foreshadow events to come in subsequent novels. The Kill Order jumps back 13 years in time, describing the origin of the Flare and providing details for Teresa's backstory. The final novel in the series, The Fever Code, bridges the gap between The Kill Order and The Maze Runner. Interestingly, Dashner chose to publish The Maze Runner Files, which provides insight intended to fill the gaps in narration from previous novels, before completing the entire series. This resulted in many large questions, such as Is Dr. Paige's utopia another trial? and, Was Teresa manipulating Thomas all along? as well as small questions such as How did Gally escape the Maze? and, Why was Brenda so affectionate with Thomas in the Scorch trials? being left unanswered.

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